The Boy Who Knew What The Birds Said/Chapter 6
The Giant and the Birds
THE Cock scraped and the Hens scraped and when the Hens went away the Cock scraped by himself. He called the Hens back, and they all scraped deeper and deeper. Then something was shown; it was bright and round, and the Cock and the three Hens scraped until the whole of it was to be seen. It was a great ring of brass.
"Tell us how you knew the bright thing was there, Hero-son of my heart?" said the Little Slate-colored Hen that was the Cock's mother.
"Do, do," said the Feather-legged Hen.
"Tell us, Top of Wisdom," said the Blue Hen.
"You all know," said the Cock, "that the earth rocks underneath the place where I crow in the morning."
"We know, O Unvanquishable," said the three Hens.
"The earth never rocked here," said the Cock, "hence I knew that something powerful was under the ground at this place. It was the ring of brass. Now it will be found and brought into the house. And when I stand here and crow in the morning the earth will rock as it does in every other place in the world."
"It will, it will," said the Feather-legged Hen.
"It must, O Top of Valor," said the Blue Hen.
"And you will tell us how the ring of brass came to be there, Hero-son of my heart," said the Little Slate-colored Hen that was the Cock's mother.
"In the course of the evening I may do so," said the Cock condescendingly.
When they were beside the sunny wall, the Hens on the ground scattering dust over their feathers and their lord standing on one leg with his comb hanging over one eye the Cock said "No Cock of our breed ever told this story before. They would not frighten the hens with it. However, since you have persuaded me I will tell you the tale. My grandfather told it to my father who told it to me. It is the story of the Big Man who came to this place and who wore the ring of brass that we uncovered to-day."
He did not put it over his head as you might think from the size of the ring. No. He wore it on his arm. Never was a bigger man seen by anyone living. The whole countryside stood outside their houses to see him come over the hills. When he came to where the stones are he stooped down to take a drink and he drank the well dry. The people came out of the house to meet him, and he spoke to them, and out of what he said to them they drew his story.
As I am to a Bantam, the Big Man was to the other men of the country. And if they were surprised at his bigness, he was astonished at their smallness. For he came from a time when all were as big as he. A hundred and a hundred years before he had hunted with his companions, and he was then called, not Big Man, but Little Fawn.
And one day—a hundred and a hundred years ago it was—he had gone to chase a deer. The deer fled into a cave. He followed with his hounds and his sword, his trumpet and his missile-ball. He went astray and fell asleep in the Cave. And when he wakened up, his hounds were heaps of dust beside him. He went into the world, and he found that his companions were dead for a hundred and a hundred years and that the men of the earth had become smaller and smaller. In the Cave he left his sword and his trumpet and his missile-ball.
The Cock put his two feet on the ground and shook his red comb from over his left to over his right eye. Then said he, Everyone in the house was friendly to Little Fawn except one person—Murrish the Cook-woman. From the first day he came there were disputes between them. "Big men have big appetites," said she to him the day
All flew from the mountain except one bird and he was the greatest amongst them all.
he came, "and so to-night I will give you two eggs for your supper." But when she handed him the eggs Little Fawn said "It was not the eggs of the hedge-sparrow we were wont to eat in my time." "Eggs of the hedge-sparrow!" said Murrish, "I have handed you the biggest eggs laid by the best hens in the country." "In my time there were bigger eggs in the nest of the hedge-sparrow," said Little Fawn.
The next day she gave him a barley-cake for his breakfast. He ate it and then sent the boy Ardan was his name to ask what else she was going to give him.
"Give him!" said Murrish the Cook-woman, "I have given him a whole barley cake, and that is enough for two men's breakfasts."
"Tell her," said Little Fawn, "that I often saw an ivy-leaf that was as big as her barley cake."
"Tell him," said Murrish the Cook-woman, "that I am not here to listen to old mens' romances."
Now when he heard that his words were taken as old men's romances Little Fawn was an angry man. He was hungry, for the food he got did not stay his appetite, but what Murrish said in doubt of his word gave him more hurt than his hunger did. For in his day and amongst his companions a lie was never told and nothing a man said was ever doubted.
The next day he sent back the dish for more butter.
"Tell him," said Murrish the cook-woman, "that I put a whole pat of butter on his dish—enough to do two men for two days."
"Tell her," said Little Fawn, "that often I saw a rowan berry that was bigger as her pat of butter."
"The child just out of the cradle would not believe that story," said Murrish the cook-woman.
She sent him a quarter of mutton for his dinner. Little Fawn told Ardan to ask Murrish for more, as the dinner she gave him left him hungry still.
"Did he not get a whole quarter of mutton for his dinner?" said Murrish.
"A whole quarter of mutton, did she say?" said Little Fawn. "Often I saw a quarter of a blackbird that was bigger than her quarter of mutton."
"A quarter of a blackbird bigger than my quarter of mutton! Tell him that if he never lied before, he lies now," said Murrish.
"Does she say that?" said Little Fawn. "Then I swear I shall never rest in the house nor be easy in my mind until I bring her an ivy leaf that is as big as her barley loaf, and a rowan berry that is as big as her pat of butter, and if I bring these," said he, "it may not be needful for me to get her the blackbird that is as big in one quarter as the quarter of mutton that she gave me for my dinner."
There and then he went from the house and Ardan the boy went with him. They went east and they went west, they went towards the north and towards the south, but no ivy leaf did they find that was as big as a barley loaf, and no rowan berry did they see that was as big as a pat of butter. Little Fawn was troubled and downcast. They came back to the house, and Murrish the Cook-woman was pleased when she heard from Ardan that they found no ivy leaf and saw no rowan berry that was as big as her barley loaf or her pat of butter. "There is only one thing I can do now," said Little Fawn and that is to bring her the blackbird that is as big in one quarter as the quarter of mutton she gave me for my dinner. And that," said he to Ardan, "will take time and trouble and the meeting of danger to bring about."
"Time and trouble," said the Feather-legged Hen, "time and trouble!"
"Why did he say time and trouble, O Top of Wisdom?" said the Blue Hen.
"Hush now," said the Little Slate-colored Hen that was the Cock's mother. "Hush now, and let the Hero-son of my heart tell what's best in the story. . . ."
"Little Fawn was an old man, white-haired and feeble when he came to the house," said the Cock, and now he was nearly blind. His mind would not be at rest, he told Ardan, until he brought to Murrish and showed her a blackbird that was as big in one quarter as the quarter of mutton she gave him for his dinner. "But before I can take that blackbird," said he, "I must have a hound. There is a hound in the yard, but I have tried her and found she is weak and fearful. She will have puppies, and one of her puppies, maybe, will do." And he told Ardan to tell him when the puppies came to the hound that was in the yard.
Then one day Ardan came and told him that there was a litter of puppies with the hound. "That is well," said Little Fawn, "and in a while we will try if one has the strength and courage enough to help us to take the blackbird."
He told Ardan what to do. He was to take the skin that had been stripped off a dead horse and he was to nail this skin upon a door in the yard. Then he was to do a curious thing. He was to take up each puppy and fling it against the door.
Ardan did all this and Little Fawn stood by and heard the puppies yowling as they fell on the ground. They scampered away. Then he heard nothing except Ardan's laugh.
"Why are you laughing, my boy?" said Little Fawn.
"I laugh to see what the last puppy is doing," said Ardan.
"And what is he doing?" said Little Fawn.
"He has not fallen to the ground like the others. He has caught hold of the horseskin with his teeth and he is holding on to it."
"That puppy will do," said Little Fawn. "He has strength and courage. Take him and rear him away from the others, and when he comes to his full strength you and I will take him to hunt the blackbird that is as big in one quarter as the quarter of mutton Murrish the Cook-woman gave me for my dinner. We must make our word good this time, good lad." Ardan took away the puppy (Conbeg they called him) from the others and reared him up. Little Fawn tested his strength and courage in many ways. At length he was satisfied. One day he put a leash on Conbeg and he told the boy to come with him. Little Fawn and Ardan and Conbeg the young hound went away from the house.
"Tis the best part of the story," said the Little Slate-colored Hen that was the Cock's mother.
"It is, it is," said the Feather-legged Hen.
"And how well he tells it, the Top of Wisdom," said the Blue Ben.
tell it as my father told me and as his father told him," said the Cock changing legs. "The first place they went was into the Cave where the Big Man had lain for a hundred and a hundred years. They found there the heap of dust that was his two hounds, and they found too the missile-ball of brass and the trumpet and the great sword. They left the Cave and they turned south, and they went on and on till they came to the mountain that is called Slieve-na-Mon. The boy and the man and the hound rested themselves for a while on the level on the top of the mountain.
Then Little Fawn told Ardan to take the trumpet and put it to his mouth. He blew on the trumpet. O louder than ever I crowed was the noise he made on that trumpet. The trees that were growing on the mountain top shook at the sound.
"Blow again," said Little Fawn.
And Ardan blew again and he blew louder.
"Now look into the sky," said Little Fawn, "and tell me what you see coming towards us."
Ardan looked for a long time, and at last he saw what he thought was a cloud coming towards the mountain-top. And then he saw that the cloud was a flock of birds. They came to the mountain-top and lighted on the ground—Peewits, Blackbirds, Starlings, Finches, Linnets—and each was bigger than any bird he had ever seen. The birds were hardly afraid of the hound, but Conbeg went amongst them and drove them away.
And then another cloud was seen coming across the sky, and this cloud came to be a flock of birds too, and they came to the mountain-top and lighted on the ground—Linnets, Finches, Starlings, Blackbirds, Peewits—and each bird was bigger than the birds in the first flock. "Loose the hound on them," said Little Fawn. Ardan unslipped Conbeg and the hound went amongst the birds. But they were not afraid and they attacked the hound, and only his strength and courage was so great they would have driven him off the mountain-top.
They rose up and they flew away, and as they did another flock of birds came towards the mountain-top. They lighted on the ground—Peewits, Blackbirds, Starlings, Finches, Linnets—tremendous birds. Ardan loosed Conbeg on them. Then with beaks open and claws outstretched they flew at Ardan and Little Fawn. Little Fawn took his great sword in hand and he attacked them with such strength that the great birds flew off.
All flew from the mountain except one bird. He was a Blackbird and the greatest amongst them all. When Ardan told Little Fawn that this bird was left alone on a rock the Big Man told him to unloose Conbeg.
The hound dashed at the Blackbird but the blackbird flew at him and attacked him with beak and claws. With a sweep of his wing he threw Conbeg on the ground. Then he rose up in the air and flew towards Ardan and Little Fawn. "You will escape him," said Ardan, "but me he will kill as he has killed Conbeg." "Put the missile-ball into my hand and guide my aim," said Little Fawn. Ardan put the missile-ball of brass into the Big Man's hand and guided his aim. Little Fawn threw the missile-ball and the Blackbird fell down on the ground. But the bird was not killed.
"A frightening tale, a frightening tale," said the Blue Hen.
"So it is, so it is," said the Feather-legged Hen.
"But you have done well to tell the Hens the story, Hero-son of my heart," said the Little Slate-colored Hen that was the Cock's mother.
"More has to be told," said the Cock, "and it is needful that it should be told now. Murrish the Cook-woman was in the kitchen. In dashed Conbeg the hound, his eyes blazing with the fierceness of the chase. Murrish was so frightened that she ran to the door. And coming to the door she saw Little Fawn with a net on his shoulder. He came into the house and he put the net on the floor, and he showed Murrish what was in the net—a tremendous bird—a Blackbird that was as big in one quarter as the quarter of mutton she had on the table. And when the net was laid down on the ground the Blackbird flew up and he carried the middle of the roof away with him as he flew through it and he tumbled beams and rafters down upon Murrish. My grandfather saw the Blackbird flying towards the mountain that is called Slieve-na-Mon, and my grandfather told my father who told me." "You spoke the truth when you said that you saw a blackbird as big in one quarter as the quarter of mutton I gave you for your dinner," said Murrish the cook-woman to Little Fawn. "And I believe you when you say you saw an ivy leaf as big as my barley loaf and a rowan berry as big as my pat of butter." "I would only show you," said Little Fawn "that the men I lived amongst had truth on their lips as they had strength in their hands and courage in their hearts.
And from that day Little Fawn and Murrish the Cook-woman lived in peace and good fellowship, and Ardan and Conbeg grew up together and became famous, one and the other. They lived happy for long, but as the books say.—
The end of every ship is drowning,
The end of every kiln is burning,
The end of every feast is wasting,
The end of every laugh is sighing.
And if they were here once, they are here no more.
"And if they are not, we are," said the Slate-colored Hen that was the Cock's mother. "We're here," said she, "and the earth, I promise you, will shake under your feet to-morrow, no matter where you crow, Hero-son of my heart."